Cedar Rapids Flood Recedes But Cleanup Remains

By: Associated Press
By: Associated Press

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (AP) -- When Kathy Wiebold moved into her ranch-style house a couple years ago, people assured her it wasn't in the flood plain and had never flooded. So she didn't purchase the extra insurance.

Now, she's planning to ask her sister from New Orleans how she bounced back from Hurricane Katrina.

"I had the floors so nice and clean," Wiebold, 59, said Saturday as she poured bleach on her concrete kitchen floor and spread it around with a broom. "What the hell can you do about it?"

As the record flooding continues its slog eastward across Iowa toward the Mississippi River, the answer officials say, is get out of the way and wait.

Floodwaters were receding Saturday in Cedar Rapids after swamping 1,300 city blocks, forcing 24,000 evacuations and nearly crippling the water supply for the state's second largest city. But as the Cedar retreated, waters in Iowa City had already invaded parts of the University of Iowa campus and weren't expected to crest until sometime Monday or Tuesday.

"This is our version of Katrina," Johnson County Emergency Management spokesman Mike Sullivan said. "This is the worst flooding we've ever seen - much worse than 1993," when much of the Midwest was hit by record flooding.

At least three deaths in Iowa have been attributed to the storms and subsequent flooding, and 12 more have died in two recent tornadoes. The storms have prompted the governor to issue disaster proclamations for 83 of the state's 99 counties.

President Bush was briefed on the flooding in Iowa and other parts of the Midwest while he was in Paris, and was assured that federal agencies are making plans to help people affected by the high water, White House press secretary Dana Perino said.

"He expressed his concern for people who may still be in danger and for those who are hurting from the impact of the storms," Perino said.

In the Iowa capital of Des Moines, a levee breach Saturday morning inundated a neighborhood of more than 200 homes, a high school and about three dozen businesses. City crews and National Guard units struggled to build a temporary berm in a bid to stop the water, but by midmorning the water had cut through mounds of dirt and sandbags.

Some residents of the racially diverse, working class Birdland neighborhood were upset that other areas of city have received more flood-control improvements than Birdland since massive floods hit the area in 1993.

"They should have known this was coming," said Chris Lucas, who had taken refuge at a shelter.

Another levee break along the Iowa River in the southeastern corner of the state swamped tiny Oakville, population 439. Also in southeast Iowa, authorities told all the roughly 250 people in Fredonia to leave their homes and ordered more evacuations in two other small towns, Columbus Junction and Columbus City - all clustered near the junction of the Iowa and Cedar rivers.

But the state's worst damage to date was in Cedar Rapids, where early estimates put property damage at $736 million, said fire department spokesman Dave Koch. He said about 9.2 square miles of the city were affected by flooding.

But by Saturday, the immediate concern there switched from the water flowing in the streets to that flowing out of people's taps.

Three of the city's four drinking water collection wells were contaminated by murky, petroleum-laden floodwaters, leaving only about 15 million gallons a day capacity for the city of more than 120,000 and the suburbs that depend on its water system. Officials warned that if people didn't cut back on nonessential uses, drinking water would run out within a couple of days.

"Please, please take care of the water," city council member Jerry McGrane said, his voice cracking with emotion.

Residents not forced to leave their homes appeared to be taking the warnings to conserve seriously.

Kathy Wickham, 65, was collecting water from the dehumidifier in her basement and has been bathing from the 6-inch-deep enamel washbasin she used as a child on the farm. "I grew up without any running water, so I'm going back to my childhood," she said.

Raejean White posted bright yellow signs at all six entrances to the Preston Terrace Condominiums that read: "If it's yellow, let it mellow. If it's brown, flush it down."

In Catherine Holt's household, there are nine children ranging in age from 2 to 17 - including four teenage girls. She said they're making do with baby wipes and water stored earlier in the week in milk jugs and soda bottles.

"So what if it stinks?" said Holt, who closed off one of the family's two bathrooms and forbade the children from using any faucets. "This is so minor compared to what other people are going through."

Just south of Cedar Rapids, in Iowa City, the Iowa River had caused major damage by Saturday even though the crest was at least two days away. The river is expected to reach 33 feet late Monday or early Tuesday, far above the 25-foot flood stage.

More than 200 homes had been evacuated in Iowa City, and the city manager estimated more than 500 homes and businesses were under mandatory evacuation.

A curfew was instituted from 8:30 p.m. to 6 a.m. throughout Johnson County. No one is allowed within 100 yards of floodwaters during those hours.

At the University of Iowa, whose campus is bisected by the Iowa River, students and faculty joined with townspeople and members of the National Guard to fill thousands of sandbags in the area known as the Arts Campus. But it wasn't enough.

"We've pretty much just abandoned any effort to try and protect the Arts Campus because we are just overwhelmed by the amount of water," university spokesman Steve Parrott said. "It's just too unsafe."

Valuable paintings have been removed from the art museum, he added.

Several hundred volunteers sweated in low-80s sunshine Saturday, sandbagging near the university library and other buildings. Water lapped within a few feet of the journalism building as a line of people passed bags to the makeshift wall. But at times, the river seemed to be rising nearly as fast as the sandbag wall.

Dr. Chuck Hess, an adjunct professor at the university and emergency room physician, looked over the mass of people and found reason to smile.

"This is the Midwest," he said. "People try to help each other. Young kids and old gomers like me, all working together."

The sandbagging effort was called off Saturday night and was to resume by 8 a.m. Sunday, said Marian Karr, a spokeswoman for Iowa City's flood control center.

Iowa has had a wet spring, and at least 8 inches of rain have fallen since June 6. Next week is expected to be sunny and dry, but forecasters said Cedar Rapids could be in for more thunderstorms.

As Wiebold squished across her sodden living room carpet, thunder rumbled in the distance. She sighed and expressed a sentiment that is likely on most Iowans' minds.

"I just wish it would stop raining."

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